Release Date: 10th January, 2013
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Starring: Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Nick Nolte
Sporting middling-to-high praise from dubious sources, a flashy trailer and an unexpectedly promising ensemble cast, to contemplate viewing Gangster Squad is almost like playing Russian Roulette with your spare time. Based on Paul Lieberman’s chronicle of the same name, this noirish film adaptation directed by Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less) is a loosely-truthful (read: mostly nonsense) account of the rise and fall of Mickey Cohen’s Los Angeles empire during the 1940s and 50s at the hands of a vigilante guerrilla squad.
Fed up with the escalating levels of corruption across L.A. at Cohen’s (Penn) behest, Chief William H. Parker (Nolte) decides to take matters into his own hands by forming an off-the-books operation with a single purpose: to crumble Cohen’s empire. The squad are led by Sgt. John O’Mara (Brolin), a headstrong ex-militaryman with a shadowy past who likes to make babies and chew scenery in his spare time. With the begrudging help of his gestating wife and a hackneyed series of montages, O’Mara recruits the ragtag group of like-minded, gun-toting cannon fodder – plus an obligatory nerd – before embarking on an intricate Dirty Dozen-esq mission.
Whilst on paper the premise leaves a slim opportunity for sincerity to thrive, it should be made abundantly clear that Gangster Squad – for the most part – aligns itself with a modernist, pulpy approach to the gangster genre. Much of the dialogue feels superficial and clichéd, characters are less than substantive and the setup is about as playful as an Ocean’s film. This is aptly complimented by a sharp, over-zealous digital cinematography that revels in motion blur, slow motion and pyrotechnics; its presentation is slick, if incredibly clean-cut, to the point of often appearing uninvitingly cold.
Tonally, the film seems at odds with itself. Peppered throughout are frail attempts to escalate a sense of drama but the shallow screenplay rarely provides enough reason to care. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling rekindle their on-screen romance following 2011’s Crazy, Stupid, Love, although there’s a distinct lack of chemistry to their forbidden romance this time around, of which they have proven more than capable. The majority of the ensemble are introduced as walking adjectives and rarely exceed that status, although screen veterans Penn and Brolin manage to mine out a couple of enjoyable performances by fearlessly hamming up their respective roles. Despite Penn’s distracting make-up, you can’t help but admire his dedication to the part of Cohen, whose thuggish gait and distinct lack of charm inevitably become the reasons to stick around for the explosive finale.
That’s not to say there isn’t something to enjoy, however. Gangster Squad is at its best when it is at its most superficial: once the clunky opening act is out of the way, the second kicks off at an enjoyable click as the gunplay and capering are lathered on in unapologetic, stylised abundance. Whilst the squad slowly pick apart Cohen’s empire, Penn finds wonderful new ways to freak out at and/or brutally murder his incompetent henchmen, the highlights of which will inevitably make its way to a humorous gif set some months down the road. Unfortunately, the narrative decides to ditch this amoral frolicking all-too-quickly in favour of poorly-constructed tugs at the heartstrings and a painfully sentimental sense of conscience, closing with a groan-inducing monologue about badges, or duty, or justice, or something.
Caught somewhere between a drama and a parody, Gangster Squad is an awkward watch littered with unrealised potential and uninspired writing. Those who can swallow the shrewd morality pandering may find something to enjoy in the over-the-top performances, flashy set-pieces or exquisite production design, but be prepared to dig deep for these saving graces.